Three Communications Tools All Residential Architects Should Have

For an architect, working on residential projects can be extremely rewarding…and extremely difficult. Even though the number of stakeholders on the client side is pretty low compared to commercial work (usually just a husband and wife), decisions aren’t necessarily any easier. After all, your project is likely the most important thing they have going on in their daily lives, not to mention one of their largest investments. So, how can you manage their expectations and minimize one or two headaches along the way? Here are a few tools that can help.

1. A “Why Hire an Architect” Handout
The AIA website and your local AIA chapter’s website have this info in various forms and capturing it on a brief printed piece that you can hand to first-time clients is very useful, even if they have already made the decision to hire you. It is important for a client to understand why they hired you, what you can do, or even why they hired you instead of a non-licensed alternative from the beginning of the project.

2. A Process Handout
You know your jobs inside and out but clients might not. From experience, I can also say that it is terribly difficult to explain working process to a client when you’re in the middle of it. A simple process sheet that explains the basic steps along the way is a great tool to hand to a new client. If they already understand how everything will go – no problem; if they have never built a new house before – they now have a basic understanding of when they will have to approve design decisions and materials, when the project can be bid, etc. as it relates to their overall project timeline. It doesn’t have to be too detailed, just enough info for them to get the order of operations.

3. A Phone/Email List
I know it seems a bit cliche, but as the architect you set a clear tone as the project lead by gathering this info and giving it to a client. You also have a chance to save yourself some time by letting the client know who they can call for various types of questions. Are you doing the CA? Are there several people in your office that can answer project specific questions? Will the client have to call utility companies towards the end of the project? Is there an HOA involved? Delivering all of these points of contact in one location might save you several returned phone calls along the way.

These tools are all simple to pull together and only one of them has to be updated for every project. The hope is that a little bit of effort up front, can help manage expectations and save a lot of time over the life of the project.

Have any other tips you’ve picked up along the way? Feel free to leave them in the comments section for others to benefit from!

Are our architecture schools teaching us enough non-architecture?

I was recently reading an article from Architectural Record about the current job market and its impact on young to mid-level architects.
The article is interesting on a number of levels, including some of the statistics (in Q1 of 2009, A/E firms cut 88,000 jobs…wow).  However, what caught my attention most is the question, “What are our schools preparing young architects to do instead?”  The best architecture programs are amazing at producing designers, thinkers, artists (I applaud my alma mater Virginia Tech for this).  Very few are known for their ability to prepare intern architects for some of the other professional aspects of the career though.  How many of us had management or marketing classes as a regular or required part of our curriculum for example?
The lack of exposure to some of those aspects of the corporate world produce back-up plans like many mentioned in the article:  homemade ice cream maker, ski instructor, pastry chef.  
At the risk of sounding anti-creative program (I’m totally not!)…would it be out of place to include a business or database class in all architecture programs to prepare our young architects with related, but non-design skills?  

A slow economy shouldn’t mean tight lips in your A/E/C firm

I’ve been lucky enough to work with/for some wonderful design and creative companies.  Luckily, in most of my experience, communication with and amongst leadership in the smaller companies has always been easy for anybody within the org.  However, I have noticed some very specific behavioral trends when times are tough.  The following points are “things to avoid” that I’ve noticed from an internal marketing and communications standpoint.

1.  A significant increase in closed door meetings
When doors are closed, people talk…and I don’t mean the people in the meeting.  Employee loyalty and confidence decrease when there is a noticeable increase in long, closed-door meetings.
2.  Falling back on the “old guard”
Companies develop management teams for a reason, and people take pride in their involvement in corporate decisions.  However, when revenue or profits dry up, it’s common for business owners/Principals to fall back on the one or two people they know and trust best.  This is a mistake for a number of reasons.  First, it isolates the rest of the team that have a vested interest in the direction of the company.  Secondly, it stifles the creativity and idea generation that a multi-disciplinary management team brings to the table.  Finally, it often puts the pressure on just the same two or three people involved over and over again, which isn’t a great model for corporate or professional growth.
3.  All projects get caught in bottlenecks
Because the same two or three people tapped for major decision-making are also usually key parts of company operations, the increased focus on management meetings creates a bottleneck in getting both billable and non-billable work out the door.  This means, marketing projects take longer or may even get held up altogether.  It also means that proposal responses slow down, project reviews and approvals slow down…and that leads to lower profit on projects because teams are sitting around waiting!  It turns into a self-fulfilling problem.
Sustaining or growing an A/E/C firm in a slow economy is difficult, but it is crucial that the team that’s involved during the good times, is involved during the bad.  Sharing the workload and increasing communications empowers and motivates a good marketing and management team.

Leading, Award-Winning, Cutting Edge and all around the cat’s meow

How many of us have used at least one of these in our marketing materials?

We are a cutting-edge design firm focused on providing top notch design…
We are a leading architectural firm in… 

Our award-winning team of designers and engineers…

There isn’t anything wrong with these statements necessarily, but we can’t let our marketing efforts or proposals rest on something that 95% of our competition can say. When competing for the attention of a potential client, it’s important for us to maximize every word, because we never know when they may click-off of the site, or close the proposal.

Here’s one sample leading sentence that I grabbed in a quick Google search:

XXX is a full service, award-winning firm with experience in planning, architecture and interior design.

Whether you are leading, award-winning, full service…or all of the above, these words aren’t really distinguishing you from the pack.  If you’re firm has been in existence for twenty years and you’ve won one award, then you can say that you’re award-winning.  What exactly does full-service mean in our industry, especially if you aren’t a design-build firm? 

At the risk of dating yourself, it would mean much more to say “A 2008 winner of the AIA Honor Awards for Architecture, our firm…” even into 2010.  This is an award that a potential client can look up and see just how prestigious it is.  If you didn’t happen to win an award that you find prestigious enough to tout, it may be best not to have award-winning be your opening line. When the award gets too old, just update your web/proposal content.
The idea behind good AEC marketing isn’t to “sell” your firm (insert pistol fingers and clicking sound with mouth), it’s to differentiate your firm.  I’m also definitely not suggesting that you don’t tell the world about your accomplishments, I’m suggesting that you tell them about your specific accomplishments.  
Tell them what you do best!